MANATEE -- Asia stole her own thunder Tuesday morning.
While 100 eager Blackburn Elementary School students listened to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus emcee Ashley Vargas explain facets of the circus and details about elephants, Asia, a female Asian elephant, joined the fun a little bit too early, wearing a Christmas hat and carrying Santa Claus.
Collective oooh, aahs and shouts of excitement interrupted Vargas as the 8,400-pound elephant made her way to the school's front lawn. A business partnership with Feld Entertainment, parent of the circus, made Tuesday's visit possible.
"It ended up working out very conveniently," said Krista Francies, the students support specialist at Blackburn and at Stewart Elementary School.
Students who participate in the school's positive behavior system are rewarded each quarter, said Francies.
During the school day, students can earn tickets from teachers and staff for exhibiting positive behavior that reinforces safety, responsibility and respect. Weekly winners are chosen. At the end of the month, the tickets are counted and students can spend their tickets at the student store. Those in attendance Tuesday were the weekly winners for the second quarter.
Sa'mya Holte, a 12-year-old fifth-grade student, got an even more special treat. Sa'mya was allowed to feed Asia. Although students suspected the elephant's favorite treat was peanuts, Vargas explained that elephants love to eat loaves of bread.
"I was nervous," Sa'mya said afterward. "I thought it was going to lick me."
That elephant, Sa'mya noted, is "ginormous!" But with principal Marla Massi-Blackmore by her side, she fed Asia a loaf of bread, ripped into two huge chunks.
"I thought we'd break it into little pieces," she said.
As part of the partnership with Feld, students also received free tickets to the circus, which begins Jan. 1 in Tampa. The students were given a discount code for their families to purchase tickets, too.
Jermicia Holiday, a third-grader at Blackburn, is excited to be going to the circus and see a real tiger. As part of Tuesday's event, the students all received stuffed tigers from Santa.
"I want to see a real tiger, and a bunch of clowns fitting into a small car," Jermicia said.
The 9-year-old said it's important to be a good person and to help others. She likes math, so she sometimes can help her classmates with math.
"If you can be good to other people, they'll be good to you, too," she said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.